In a stunning decision, federal jurors in the Vincent Asaro racketeering trial acquitted the aging mobster of all charges on Thursday.
Asaro, 80, had been accused of co-planning the 1978 Lufthansa heist at JFK International Airport with James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke. The daring robbery was highlighted in Martin Scorsese’s film “Goodfellas.”
A jubilant Asaro walked out of the Brooklyn courtroom with his hands raised over his head. “Free!” he yelled to news reporters who surrounded him.
Since his arrest nearly two years ago, Asaro has shuttled between his jail cell and court, an ordeal he called “very traumatic.”
At the time of Asaro’s (right) arrest in January 2014, Loretta Lynch, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, blustered that he had deep roots in organized crime. Asaro’s father and grandfather were members of the Bonanno crime family. Characterizing him as an active participant in Mafia activities, Lynch said, “Neither age nor time dimmed Asaro's ruthless ways, as he continued to order violence to carry out mob business in recent months.”
Prosecutors pinned their case against Asaro on tape recordings made by Gaspare Valenti, his cousin and a fellow Bonanno family mobster. Valenti turned informant in 2008 and recorded three years of conversations with Asaro. During the trial, Valenti said that Asaro recruited him for the Lufthansa robbery, which netted $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewels. Asaro supposedly received between $500,000 and $750,000 for his efforts in organizing the caper.
Valenti also testified that Asaro and Burke strangled a suspected informant with a dog chain in 1969. Valenti claimed that Asaro ordered him to help bury the body at a construction site.
In the end, the trial became a case of criminal versus criminal. Prosecutors sought to present Asaro as a brutal criminal, while defense attorneys hammered away at Valenti’s credibility.
“Valenti is an experienced liar,” said one of Asaro’s attorneys. “He is a person who was able to lie to everyone around him for years.”
The trial hinged on whether Valenti’s motives could be trusted. Valenti testified that he left the mob because he was broke and disillusioned with his criminal life. The defense team’s strategy focused on depicting Valenti as cash-hungry and willing to tell the government whatever it wanted to hear.
Prosecutors noted that Valenti offered his services to the government without provocation. He was neither arrested nor in fear for his life from the mob. As such, Valenti’s volunteerism is a stark contrast to turncoats of years past.
In previous decades, there were high stakes for snitches. When the mob was powerful and had long tentacles, there was a good chance of deadly retribution. There was also the stigma of shame that befell the family of a rat. Often, a turncoat’s family would be compelled to join him in the federal witness protection program.
Back then, if a mobster turned his back on the Mafia and broke omerta, it was indicative that he had seriously considered the ramifications of his move. Consequently, his testimony seemed to be regarded with a higher degree of validity.
In today’s post-modern mob, the gravitas of turning government informant is gone. When a crime family boss such as Joe Massino (right) turns snitch, it becomes much easier for others to follow suit. Breaking omerta is now a career move. Valenti has been paid nearly $180,000 by the feds since becoming a cooperator. Sal Vitale, the former underboss of the Bonanno family, has earned more than $250,000 for helping prosecutors.
When jurors hear of the financial payouts and the sweetheart deals cut with prosecutors, it tends to undermine the credibility of the witnesses. Juries realize that witnesses have become incentivized to lie. The better their stories, the better the deal they will cut with the feds.
Referring to the witnesses against Asaro, defense lawyer Elizabeth Macedonio said, “These are despicable people. They are accomplished liars.”
The U.S. government, she stated, has become the “pension plan” for ex-gangsters.
While the government’s case against Asaro may have been weak, there was immense momentum for a trial. Federal prosecutors boost their careers on sensational racketeering cases. Defense attorneys build their brands representing high-profile clients like Asaro, who was reputedly once a Bonanno capo. And the media fuels the public’s interest.
But the feds were nibbling at crumbs. Yes, the jury heard incriminating recordings of Asaro complaining that he got shortchanged on his Lufthansa share (“We never got our right money…what we were supposed to get. ... Jimmy kept everything”).
However, they also heard Asaro discussing his dire financial condition and his plans to apply for government food stamps. In the tape recordings, Valenti advised Asaro that he could improve his chances by telling social workers that he had nothing in the house to eat.
The Asaro case was regarded as one of the last landmark mob trials. With the prosecution of the old-school gangster, the government was hoping to not only drive a nail into the coffin of the dwindling mob, but also close the Lufthansa case. Now, with Asaro’s acquittal, he returns to the underworld fringes, and the veil of mystery returns to the Lufthansa heist.
Robert Sberna is an investigative reporter who has written a short-format book on the Lufthansa robbery, “The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist,” which is available on Amazon. Sberna hosts www.thecrimebeat.com.
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